Hard Conversations With Other White People
How did you feel the morning after the election? Did you feel hopeless, like you’d never climb out of that pit of despair? By now, maybe your grief has dulled. But the urgency is greater than ever. As a self-described progressive, DNC member, Bernie voter, or even a radical, you may feel an intense sense of camaraderie with the rest of the nation that voted against Trump and now has to deal with the repercussions of his presidency. But we — you and I — are different than some of the other folks who voted against Trump. And that’s because we’re white.
As white people, we first need to come to terms with the fact that six out of ten white people voted for Trump. Chances are, you know some of those people. Some of them may love and trust you. Those white Trump voters are our people, and it’s our responsibility to talk to them.
The reasons white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump vary widely. Many white voters say they voted for Trump not because of, but in spite of, some his more harmful and oppressive statements. Given the depth of outrage many of us feel, this can be hard to grapple with. But we need to keep trying to move more white people into deeper understanding of, and eventual allyship with people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and others who are most likely to be harmed under the Trump administration. Informed and sympathetic white Americans can help ensure that there is broad, bipartisan opposition to any hate-fueled policies and practices that emerge in the new administration.
We must be the front lines of educating and organizing other white folks. We cannot back away or “wait and see” how things turn out. As Brittany Packett wrote in Vox, “White people must be the primary ones to deal with what white people cause.” But how? Here are some ideas and pointers to get you started:
When we hear stories, humans use a different part of our brain than when we hear data or facts. Stories awaken our emotional brain, making it easier for us to access empathy and understanding. Try talking about incidents you have witnessed or conversations you’ve had with close friends. One study found that the most effective way to move people to support marginalized groups was through deep conversation that tapped into their own experiences of feeling targeted, excluded, bullied or threatened.
Another effective story to try is a journey story. You were likely not born with all of the liberal or accepting views you hold now. What helped change your mind or open your eyes? It is important for white people to realize that their political views are allowed to change and evolve. Stories of others who began with the same viewpoint as them and then made a journey towards acceptance and understanding are incredibly helpful to help move people toward allyship and understanding.
Name the Difficulty
Most folks who are struggling to understand a viewpoint that’s different than their own simply want to be acknowledged and taken seriously. In focus groups Fenton conducted around transgender healthcare access, we found that participants were more likely to be open and move positions when the facilitator acknowledged that transgender issues could sometimes be confusing or complicated. If you name the difficulty and acknowledge that talking about race can be hard and uncomfortable, it creates space for your conversation partner to feel those feelings, and to understand that to get somewhere, it’s ok to lean into that discomfort.
Use Plain Language
“Privilege,” “marginalization” and “disenfranchisement” are not commonly used terms outside progressive activist circles. They are buzzwords that will not have meaning to your conversation partner, so don’t use them. At best you will be unclear and at worst you will alienate them. Instead, use plainspoken words and concepts like safety and danger, harm and help, disadvantage and opportunity, or restriction and freedom.
Steer the Conversation
There are some handy tools you can use if you sense the conversation is going off the rails. To segue back to the main issues you want to talk about, identify a topic they care about that you can agree on and that moves the conversation forward. For example, if they are talking about feeling unsafe around Muslim people, you can find common ground in the importance of feeling safe that then allows you to discuss the many ways that Muslim people, people of color and other minorities are now less safe. And when things get truly off course, remind your conversation partner where you started and what you want to focus on by using marker phrases like “the most important thing to remember is,” or “but the point we need to talk about is,” to redirect conversations.
Avoid Toxic Topics
There are some lines of conversation that just aren’t going to help you. Try your best to steer conversations away from issues that have been proven to inflame tension:
- Demographic change: Talking about shifting majority status (i.e. whites will become a minority by 2042) is almost always inflammatory. Although you may feel there is a strong argument to be made about why diversity makes us stronger, just don’t try that. It won’t work.
- “Reverse racism:” Many white people unconsciously feel their own status may be threatened by decreases in anti-black racism. Yes, we know “reverse racism” is not a thing. But do not get into this argument with your lacrosse friend from high school. At least not on your first try.
When you’re passionate, you can launch into a lecture without realizing it. Lecturing is very unlikely to move someone, unless your goal is to convince them that you’re an out-of-touch liberal elitist. To get the conversation going, ask questions about why. If you sense confliction or doubt, try to explore it.
You have to create empty space. And in that space, your conversation partner may say some truly atrocious things. But you have to hear those things, (racist, xenophobic, homophobic, nativist things) without getting mad, without yelling and without calling that person racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or nativist, even if they objectively are. The truth is, racist people almost always vehemently believe they are not racist and will become irate if you use those words.
When you are upset, your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode and cuts off your access to higher order thinking like empathy and analysis. To keep yourself calm and your brain in the right place for game time, you’ll need some practice. Have a fun little session with your woke white friends where you role play all of the deeply messed up things your relatives, parents’ friends, or childhood next-door neighbor are likely to say. Take turns being the neighbor and really make the arguments you think they might make, as much as it might pain you to say that shit out loud.
Differentiate Intention and Impact
A favorite line of argument for self-described non-racists with Trump apologist views is about their (or Trump’s) intentions. You can both know that someone’s words or actions may not have been intended to be racist or hateful, and acknowledge their actual impact. It’s important to explain why intention is not enough. If you unintentionally run into someone on the sidewalk and cause them to spill their hot coffee, your lack of intention doesn’t take away the burn.
Paint a Picture of Linked Liberation
Many white people maintain unconscious racial bias alongside a lack of understanding in how the fates of people of color and all marginalized peoples are intertwined with their own. Instead of understanding liberation as a rising tide that lifts all boats, they may be using the flawed assumption that there is only so much power to go around and that marginalized groups gaining power will harm them or their families. Use examples that show how white people and others benefit mutually from social and economic justice, equitable policies, and are harmed mutually by marginalization and racial bias.
Be Ready for Discomfort
The fact that you care enough to be reading this right now means you are on the right track. But safety pins and pensive Facebook posts aside, you have more work to do. As white people, we all do. Talk, listen, have hard conversations and change the world. Looking for more you can do? Check out some of these great lists of organizations to get involved with and donate to. But remember, your donations and intentions are only the start. To create change, you’ll need to get ready to be uncomfortable